A piece by Andreana Reale
Opposite the Flagstaff Gardens is a little white house, nestled defiantly amongst office blocks and skyscrapers. On its window it is inscribed, in a stylish hand from another era:
Old Corner Shop
The windows were dim but the door opened easily, giving a little chime as I stepped into an entryway. “Hello?” I called out.
After a minute an elderly woman shuffled out from another room, well-dressed and wearing a long string of pearls with a jewelled clasp. “Yes?”
“Am I able to have some lunch?” I asked.
“Do you have any lunch?” I repeated, a bit louder.
“Lunch? Well, what would you like?”
I paused to think. “It depends what you have on offer,” I said finally.
“What food do you have prepared?”
“Oh.” The woman in the pearls turned around slowly. “George?!” she called out. She disappeared again.
While I waited I looked around at the room beyond the entryway. A lace-clothed two-person table sat in the window facing King Street, while a long, large table took up most of the room. Shelving covered the opposite wall, crowded with non-perishable food from the not-too-distant past: Butter Menthols in packaging I seem to remember from my childhood; jars of pickles that my grandfather would have liked; Lipton teabags.
An assortment of intriguing titles stuffed a bookshelf at the far end of the room: an RACV guide to motels in Victoria, a yellowed Marx & Engels text, an ambitiously named ancient two-volume “History of England”. A piano sat on one side of the shelf and a double-glassed-door refrigerator on the other, stacked with neat rows of brand-name drinks and slightly wilted vegetables.
“Can I help you?” A somewhat surprised but friendly-looking man stood in the entryway. This must be George.
“Hello. I’m just after some lunch.”
“Lunch? Oh – well we have vegetable soup and roast beef.”
“Sounds good.” I wasn’t surprised by the offering – after all, it had been written on the blackboard out the front of the shop. “Can I bring my friends in?”
“Yes of course,” said George. “How many of you are there?” George had the well-annunciated vowels of an actor.
“Six.” I stuck my head out the front door and waved in my five female friends, who were huddled under umbrellas against the July weather. I felt a bit bad about my lengthy reconnaissance mission, but there wasn’t much I could do about it.
The pearl lady showed us to some seats around the large table. The restaurant (or whatever it was) was empty apart from us. We sat three to a side, distracting ourselves from the awkwardness of the experience by gazing about the room. We read the posters on the walls, hand-written in felt pen:
Lola Russell presents…
Lola Russell presents…
A Christmas Carol!
330 King Street
The woman in the pearls, who we guessed was Lola, was riffling through a pile of paper.
“Are you an actor?” one of us asked.
“When I can get the work!” Lola replied. There were some coloured spotlights in the corners of the room – evidently the place got cleared out every now and then for dramatic purposes.
“What are you doing love?” asked George.
“Looking for the blessed menus.”
“Oh, bugger the menus!” George decreed, with sudden vigour. “There’s only two options anyway!”
The half on the window side of the table ordered roast beef, while the half on the shelving side ordered soup. Lola and George worked quietly in the kitchen. We could hear the occasional clatter, and one asking the other if they were alright.
The food came when it was ready: the soup first, and when the soup eaters were done, the roast beef. We were amazed at how good the food tasted, and, by some strange coincidence, how it was exactly like our grandmothers cooked.
“Where are you from,” asked Lola, as she cleared our plates.
“Collins Street,” one of us answered.
“All the way from there??” Lola exclaimed. “That’s another street!”
We explained that we also ran a café – Credo Café – that invited people in from the street to share lunch. Sometimes we cleared the tables away to put on performances, too.
“How lovely,” Lola said.
“Do you mind if I come back for a cup of tea?” I asked.
“Oh, please do,” she said, with feeling. “We would just love that.”
As we scurried to the tram in the spitting rain, we laughed and reminisced about what an odd, yet delightful, time we had just had.
“Was it a café, or Lola and George’s living room?” we asked one another.
We decided that it didn’t really matter, and that we kind of liked the ambiguity. It was a little like, in fact, our very own Credo Café, where many people walk in feeling confused, but come away feeling warm and welcomed.
Thanks Lola and George for warming up our day, and being Good Neighbours in this big, wintry city of ours.